Friday, 8 February 2013

Swimming - important lessons learnt so far

Lane swimming
For the last few weeks I have been taking two swimming lessons per week in an attempt to hone my technique.  What I have quickly come to realise, is that over time bad habits start to creep in and they can be hard to banish without the help of a qualified coach.

Swimming quickly in no way implies good technique, and whilst an inefficient stroke may get you (either slowly or quickly) from A to B when the distances involved are short, over distances of several kilometres an efficient stroke is needed.  This is especially true if the swim forms part of an Ironman triathlon, in which case it will be followed directly afterwards by 180.25km of cycling and then 42.2km of running.  In this case, efficiency in the swim stage is key.

This article is devoted to front crawl, as up till now this is the stroke that I have been focussing on in my lessons.  Before I start with my list of lessons learnt, I would just like to add something to this earlier post that I wrote.  In it, I mention that a good pair of goggles and a nose clip are wise investments.  The first thing my coach told me to do when we met was to ditch the nose clip.  Coach S. assured me that if I breathe properly, no water can enter my nose.

Common problems and lessons learnt

How should one breathe when swimming?
It is important to breathe out through the nose whilst your face is underwater, and then to breathe in through your mouth when you lift your head above the water's surface.  The part that was lacking in my case was the breathing out through my nose whilst my face was submerged.  The laws of physics make it impossible for water to enter your nose if you are actively breathing out through it.  It took some getting used to at first, and a great deal of swimming pool water ended up in my nose and lungs during the learning process, but I am starting to get the hang of it now.  A good breathing pattern of in through the mouth and out through the nose also has a nice, calming effect on the nervous system.

Legs too far under the water?
The most common reason for the legs being too far under the water is related to the head being lifted too far upwards.  Rather than looking straight in front with the head raised whilst swimming crawl, it is better for your head to face directly down in the water, and then to just use your eyes to look a metre or two in front of you in order to see where you are going.  Another reason can be too much tension in the hamstrings.  If you release the tension in your hamstrings you usually find that your legs start to rise naturally.

Cramps in the calf muscles?
This one hit me last night for the first time but it was a killer.  My muscle was visibly bulging (whilst I did appreciation the nice muscle definition I most definitely did not appreciate the pain).  It was enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to get out of the pool and stretch it out for a few minutes.  Thank goodness that didn't happen half way through an open water swim.  Calf cramps whilst swimming are usually caused when people forcibly try to point their toes.  The toes will naturally tend to point if the ankles are kept nice and relaxed, and there is no need to forcibly point them at all.  If you do get a cramp try to pull the toes back to allow the muscle to extend.  It is best to do this in the first few seconds, before the cramp becomes so painful that stretching out the muscle is no longer possible.  Sometimes, after a cramp has occurred the muscle can be sore for a day or two afterwards.  In this case a combination of heat and cold can be applied to bring some relief.  Heat tends to relieve the tension and spasms, whilst cold relieves soreness and tenderness.  Some massage can also be helpful.  Cramps can sometimes be brought on by dehydration, so it is important to remain hydrated before, during and after your swim.

Making full use of each arm pull - stroke length
One of the keys to having an efficient stroke is being able to make full use of each arm pull.  A lot of people let their arm enter the water and then immediately begin to pull the water back towards them.  The arm should enter the water slightly bent, and then you should stretch it out as far as possible until it is fully extended.  Now at this point you can being pulling the water towards you.  Like this you have just added a good few extra centimetres to your stroke length, with minimal effort.

Lane rage
Yes most of you have probably heard of road rage, so I am sure you can imagine what lane  rage is.  It is the uncontrolled anger provoked by another swimmer's act in a swimming pool that has been cordoned off into lanes.  According to this article in the Independent newspaper, lane rage is on the rise.  I myself was a victim of lane rage last night, not that I gave two hoots about the guys ten second rant.  All I did was accidentally touch his foot with my hand as I came up fast from behind him, and that was enough to set him off.  "Watch where you are going ...." blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda.  In a busy lane where there are swimmers of mixed abilities, the occasional foot touch is inevitable.  Ignoring these crazy ranters is probably the best bet, or simply turn to them and say "What is your problem mate?".  That seemed to shut the guy from last night up, as he didn't really know what to say to that.  Other than to repeat himself once or twice.  To which I simply replied "What is your problem mate?"  Had he not begun his rant I probably would have simply raised my hand or said sorry.

Lane etiquette
Having covered the issue of lane rage, I think it important to cover lane etiquette.  Just like driving on the road there are certain rules, which if followed, tend to make things easier for everyone concerned.  In many pools the lanes are marked according to both speed and stroke.  In my local pool for example, as well as having lanes marked for breaststroke and front crawl, backstroke and butterfly, we usually have one or two lanes marked "tempo".  These are reserved for the faster swimmers.

Just because you think you are fast does not mean that you should get straight into the fast lane.  Take a few seconds to look at the speeds of the swimmers in the various lanes and try to find one that closely matches your intended speed.  You may find that whilst one day you are in the fast lane, another day you are in the medium lane (because all the local Michael Phelps' turned up at once).  Also do not get into the front crawl lane if you intend to swim breast stoke.

The exception to the above rules about finding the correct lane based on your speed and stroke is when there is only one person in a lane and there are other free lanes available.  Never get into a lane with just one solo swimmer when there are other lanes with no swimmers in still available.  You can always move into the "correct" lane later if the pool becomes busier.

If there is only one swimmer in the lane and you have no choice but to enter that lane, enter the pool when the other person is not just arriving at the wall where you are.  Now you will have to decide whether to split the lane with the other swimmer, in which case you each take half of the lane and you always stay on your respective side, or whether to circular swim (which becomes obligatory when there are more than 2 swimmers in the lane anyway).  In my local pool circular swimming seems to always be the standard practise.

Circular lane swimming means that all swimmers travelling in one direction stick to one half of the lane, and all swimmers travelling in the opposite direction stick to the opposite half of the lane.  In Europe it is usually done counterclockwise, meaning that as you approach the wall you move to the lefthand side of the lane and then you turn.  People taking a rest at the wall should stick to the righthand side of the lane.

It is bad practise to just hang out in the water on the end wall of a lane, talking to your friends for hours and hours.  If you want to do that then move to the free swimming area.  It is a lane for swimming, not a coffee club after all.

The final contentious issue is that of overtaking.  Some people insist on a series of foot tapping rituals to let the other swimmer know that you are just about to pass, whilst others just get on with it.  Either way, the accepted way to overtake on the move is to check that there is no oncoming traffic and then to move into the middle of the lane, pass the slower swimmer and then move back to the side of the lane that you were originally on as swiftly as possible without cutting up the slower swimmer.  The slower swimmer should be polite and allow the overtaking person to pass, and not put on a sudden last minute burst of speed.  Close encounters and occasional collisions can occur when three people (2 travelling in one direction and 1 in the other direction) are all trying to pass in close proximity with arms and legs flailing.  If bad collisions do happen and you know that you are to blame, apologise and check everyone else is okay before continuing.  The occasional knock can happen and it is not usually necessary to stop unless it is serious.

Overtaking can also be done at the wall, but would probably necessitate some soft of communication to ensure that neither person gets cut up and feels put out.  Just try to be considerate and treat others as you would also like to be treated.

Just before signing off this post, I wanted to highlight the following part of the The Independent article that I mentioned earlier, which I found very amusing:

Lifeguards at Finchley are instructed not to get involved in arguments between swimmers but to blow a whistle - the thinking being that, since the adults are behaving like children, they will respond to a playground-style command.

Be safe, swim safe and have fun!

Monday, 4 February 2013

Running after dark - safety concerns

Since I cannot run at the moment still, I thought I would write a post about night running.

I personally love running at night.  There is an apparent air of peace and tranquility once the sun goes down, and yet at the same time all my senses appear to be heightened.  I also love scuba diving at night, for very much the same reasons.  Not only that, but you tend to see different animals.  Your chances of spotting deer are much higher at dusk and at dawn.  There are also other interesting creatures lurking in the night like foxes, badgers, bats and owls.

Night running is not without its risks however.  Firstly there is the issue of visibility.  If you are running off road on trails, then this is not so much of an issue, but if you are running around the city or along country roads, it is a very good idea to wear a fluorescent vest.  You may not win any fashion awards, but at least the cars are more likely to see you and less likely to hit you.

Secondly there is the issue of being able to see the ground in front of you.  In the city there tends to be enough street lighting that you do not need to worry too much.  Outside the city though, you will most likely need a head torch.  You don't want to step on something unexpectedly and turn your ankle after all.  The exception to this is when there is a full moon, in which case you can usually see the trail quite well.  Running under a full moon is a fantastic experience.  Watch out for the werewolves though!

Last but not least, one needs to think about personal safety.  For women this is much more of an issue than it is for men, but even for men it can also be an issue.  Let's be serious - the biggest risk is sexual assault or rape.  Most thieves would not think to rob a runner.  It is not as though we carry large sums of cash or expensive jewellery on us.  You might not want to show off all your flashy gadgets in poorer areas though.

A self defence course can be a good investment for female runners, and even male runners who are interested to do one.  They teach you the best targets to go for like the groin, eyes, shins, throat, solar plexus and such like.  If someone grabs you from behind for instance, stamp on their feet or shins or try to elbow them in the groin.  A pair of keys in your fist can make a good weapon if required.

Dogs can be an issue at any time of day, but sometimes at night there is no one else around to help you.  Coming upon a nasty dog without its owner in sight, the best thing you can do is slow your pace and try to walk slowly past the dog.  If you feel your life is under threat, grab a stone or rock and hold it in the palm of your hand. If the dog does attack go for the nose, which is a very sensitive area.  If worst comes to worst I have been told that you can kill a dog by ripping its front legs apart.  It may not be a nice thing to do, but always put your life first.  If you are carrying water, sometimes just throwing water on the dog will cause it to go away.  Whilst cycling through South America we were chased by dogs that appeared aggressive on a daily basis.  Nine times out of ten they were all bark.  I had to try the water trick once on a pack of three dogs that was chasing me, and I can tell you that it worked.  The dogs seemed surprised and then they started to argue amongst themselves, allowing me to slip away unnoticed.

Zurich is a very safe city and I run absolutely anywhere I want at any time of day or night without feeling at all threatened.  My favourite is running in the woods at night.  On the other hand, Anny always tries to stay within the more populated areas of the city when running after dark, and I think this makes a lot of sense.  Even in a city as safe as Zurich, things can happen.  Bad people can travel easily nowadays with globalisation.  A better safe than sorry approach is just plain common sense.

So please don't be put off, but stay safe, be seen, and enjoy what is a very interesting experience - running after dark!